A Journey of Sea and Stone by Tracy Balzer

June 9 is traditionally recognized as the Feast of St. Columba, who in 563 AD landed on the Scottish island of Iona to begin a monastic community.  Author Tracy Balzer has visited Iona over a dozen times, most often taking groups of pilgrims with her to learn of the deep and wide Christian influence of those early Celtic Christians.  The following is an excerpt from her new book A Journey of Sea and Stone: How Holy Places Guide and Renew Us (Broadleaf Books), which will be released on June 8, 2022.


The tiny island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland has a history so momentous in the Christian story that we risk hyperbole when we recount it. How the Irish Saved Civilization is not only the title of Thomas Cahill’s best-selling book; it could easily serve as a definitive statement about the role that Iona played in history, grandiose as it may sound. The “Irish” Cahill refers to includes Columba and his band of monks, who apparently possessed this desire for the sacred in addition to a healthy dose of wanderlust. They had read of the ascetic life of the Desert Fathers in Egypt, and this inspired many of them to seek out a “desert” of their own—a remote and lonely place where their service to God would be undeterred. The wild and windswept isle of Iona, just three miles long and one mile wide, would become their “desert.” For the better part of the next six centuries, a monastic community would be present on Iona.

An oft-cited prophecy attributed to Columba (though its true author is unknown) makes a claim worth pondering:

Iona of my heart, Iona of my love,
Instead of monks’ voices shall be
the lowing of cattle;
But ere the world shall come
to an end,
Iona shall be as it was.

This prediction—that the audible voices of monks would not always be heard on Iona—proved to be true. In the centuries following Columba’s death in 597, his monastery was repeatedly attacked by Viking marauders who plundered its treasures and eventually destroyed the place altogether.3 Even so, their words echo throughout history, speaking through the glorious illuminated manuscripts they left behind, the most famous of which is the Book of Kells. Later, Benedictine monks occupied the space where Columba’s monastery stood and speak today through the ruins of the now restored abbey. Its ancient walls reverberate with the prayers of those who have gone before, expressed in stained glass images of Celtic saints like Columba, Patrick, and Brigid. Their bold proclamation of truth remains in the intricately carved high crosses that stand in front of the abbey, a visual narrative of biblical history. To be on Iona is to experience a deep silence, simultaneously mingled with the voices of the saints of the past.

Sacred places, wherever they might be, share this distinction. They are made sacred by sacrificial living and dying, especially when both are expressions of a deeply held faith. Such places ask us to stop and listen, focus our eyes intently, and patiently wait for those ancient lives to speak. We are invited to learn and receive by purposefully reading, investigating, and pondering the ancient texts, particularly those from the Bible. By examining the lives of the great saints of old, we may be surprised to find the courage and conviction in their lives spilling over into our own.

There is also something about encountering these “voices” that resonates with us internally. Many of us recognize a natural inclination within ourselves to walk in the footsteps of the great saints and influencers of history. Like the late congressman John Lewis and others, do you find the idea of crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, ennobling? Or do you imagine running your finger along the carved names of soldiers on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC? Do you desire to visit the Holy Land and walk in the footsteps of Jesus?

The world turns and changes. The audible voices of monks, saints, and the great bridge crossers evaporate, but they leave behind treasures for us to discover, spiritual nourishment for our souls so that we might continue on the good path. Their voices linger in these sacred places, inviting us farther up and deeper in.

In the frantic pace of our daily lives, we often fret about not having enough time . . . and then we whine about being bored when it feels we have too much of it. No matter how many planners or apps we employ to get a handle on it, we can’t seem to feel anything but behind. Time can feel like an enemy, especially if we crave deep, spiritual reflection on what is most important. The crowded, noisy spaces most of us inhabit are not conducive to that reflection or to prayer.

On Iona, there are no movie theaters or fast-food restaurants, no stoplights. Even the internet is not reliable. Whenever I offer this description of Iona, the response is almost always an amusing one: Why would anyone want to spend their vacation time going somewhere that has . . . nothing? It is true that on Iona there is less of everything, which means there is more space for what we truly need if we hope to attend to our sense of “home,” our deep longing for the things of God.

Sacred places like Iona offer the one thing we cannot seem to grasp in our hyperproductive culture: unstructured time. And that is a true gift for the weary soul. The New Testament cites two Greek terms for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos—as the word implies—is linear, with a beginning and an end, measurable in minutes and hours, weeks and months, centuries and epochs. We can’t read a book without thinking chrono-logically. This is how we grasp the passing of our earthly days as well: we had a beginning, the day of our birth, and one day we will experience the end, the last day of the chronos of a life.

Kairos, however, cannot be contained by a one-dimensional calendar or clock. It doesn’t have a straightforward “before” and “after” or “beginning” and “end.” Kairos is God’s time. It is the time and way in which God fulfills his purpose. In the Gospels, when John the Baptist tells his followers that “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2), he is talking about kairos, when what God wants done is done. Kairos reveals that through Christ, a whole new way of understanding time has entered the world: it is time that is characterized not by dates and calendars but by the will of a God who is working to make all things new.

Because arriving on Iona is such a visceral experience, this particular sense of time is one of the first things I notice. I feel the pressure of chronos slide off of me like old skin that needs to be shed. On Iona I experience time in a dramatically different way than I do in my everyday life; time there seems multidimensional. The simple fact of being rid of the pressures of being constantly connected and accessible adds a dimension of true freedom to life. Rarely have I witnessed anyone in a hurry on Iona, and rarely have I been in a hurry when I am there.

The pace at which we live our lives is an indicator of the inner condition of our souls, and Iona insistently points this out to me. Along with the awareness that time moves differently on Iona comes a deep quietude that is freely available on the island. Even in the height of summer, when scores of tourists come for the day, I still manage to find my own private space on the beach. (Correction: I often have the beach entirely to myself.) The only sounds I hear are seabirds and wild geese flying overhead and the calming rhythm of waves and wind. Ewes are bleating in the distance, calling for their lambs. These natural sounds melt into the kind of silence that seems elusive in my daily life. There is the mechanical hum of the dishwasher or clothes dryer, or the clang-clang of farm vehicles bouncing along our rutted street, or the insistent buzzing of my phone, or the whining of my dog, who is adorable but insists that I be the recipient of her requests.

I can’t complain. I live in a semirural area where deer greet us regularly and a herd of cows munches contentedly in the field behind our house. It’s nothing like the high-energy sounds of an urban setting. But where silence is concerned, everything is relative. It’s not only the external volume that can overwhelm but our own internal noise. The stressful thoughts and fearful imaginings that populate my internal landscape are so loud at times that I might just as well be in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Sometimes I long to escape to Iona just to stifle the abundant noise that fills my inner and outer worlds. The peace I experience on the island comes not from the absence of conflict but from a shalom of true inner and outer flourishing.

The peace that we obtain in sacred places is something we can take back with us into the world and set loose like a thousand colorful balloons into an empty sky. I experience this kind of shalom most profoundly as I interact with other people on Iona, most of whom I do not know and likely will not ever see again. We greet each other with a smile on the walking path. We worship together in the abbey every evening. There exists an unspoken agreement that while we are all here together on this fleck of green land floating in the Atlantic, we are not about to let ideologies or theological differences harm the shalom of a holy moment.

Sacred places like Iona often have a way of recalibrating our lives—the pace at which we move, the ways we choose to spend our time and money, and the ideas that call for our attention. This is especially noted where monastic life has been or is being lived out. 4While the historic Columban and Benedictine monasteries on Iona ceased existing many centuries ago, the rhythm of daily prayer and worship remains, led each morning and evening in the abbey by the members of the Iona Community.4 Each day the bells of the abbey ring, morning and night, prodding me to stop what I’m doing and be present to the God who is very near. The rhythm of entering the abbey sanctuary each day for prayer anchors me in a most life-giving way.

Of all the charming souvenirs that routinely tempt me in the Scottish isles, it is this sacred rhythm that is my most valuable keepsake. Iona has taught me that the regular spiritual practice of stillness before God is what gives me life. It is what takes me from chaos to kairos. But eventually, I have to leave Iona and come home.

This essential rhythm comes under forceful attack the moment I set foot on US soil. The transition from the peace of Iona to the frantic pace of modern living is jarring: long lines of impatient travelers at the airport, the stress of the customs process, the dramatic reacquaintance with the speed of cars on the freeway. I may have only been gone for two weeks, but I feel I’ve entered a foreign country rather than the one of my birth. The external demands of modern culture don’t have much patience for the internal rhythms that have been cultivated on a remote island.

I am well aware that merging these two realities will be a battle, yet too often the forces of busyness and productivity overcome my desire for a healthier rhythm that is supported by regular engagement with God in the same silence and solitude I find on Iona. Even though I know good and well that a rhythm of silence, in my own sacred space, is what my soul most needs, it is the very thing I most easily sacrifice. The result is a disordered pattern of higher levels of anxiety and stress. And that is not the way I want to live.

It took going to Iona, to a sacred place, to show me the importance of rhythm for my soul. So when I am home, I know that my best days are also rooted in that rhythm, and that begins with finding a sacred place of my own right where I am. In the spring and summer, that is likely to be my front porch.

Our porch faces due east, just like the Argyll Hotel on Iona. Instead of gazing out on the Sound of Iona and its calming waters, I sit on my porch in Arkansas and watch the myriad of colorful birds that visit our trees and feeders: red-bellied woodpeckers, goldfinches, cardinals, indigo buntings, and hummingbirds en masse. On other days, I opt for the tartan-upholstered chair in my home office, a space I’ve intentionally made as unoffice-like as possible by adorning it with the images and colors of Iona.

I claim my own sacred space. For twenty or thirty minutes, whether surrounded by birdsong or the quiet of my home office, I still my heart and mind and listen for the voice of God. I tend to draw upon the Psalms for wisdom, as that ancient prayer book is so instructive when it comes to conversing with God. And always there are the essential elements of stillness and silence.

The rhythm that sacred places offer us, whether on a remote island or our front porch, can serve us well as we seek a healthier order to our lives. Taking regular time, daily, for quiet meditation is one of the ways I can best appropriate the gifts Iona has given me. I come away not only with a quieter soul but with a deeper knowledge of God’s fathomless love for me and for the world.


From Journey of Sea and Stone: How Holy Places Guide and Renew Us by Tracy Balzer copyright © 2021 Broadleaf Books. Reproduced by permission. 

Pilgrimage As a Way of Life: A Post by Prasanta Verma

This week’s post, by Prasanta Verma, is a review of my new book that’s releasing on Feb. 2. Enjoy this sneak preview; I’m grateful to Prasanta for writing it!


Have you ever been on a pilgrimage? I must say I have not, at least, not a “deliberate” journey of such. I visited some beautiful cathedrals in Europe while in college, but they were not part of an intentional pilgrimage. What a different view I would have now, with some years of experience and growth behind me!

I just finished reading 3000 Miles to Jesus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life for Spiritual Seekers by Lisa Deam, and this book is expanding my view of our spiritual journey in this life. I most often thought of pilgrimage as a physical journey with a destination, and indeed, I am contemplating what such a journey might entail for me at some point in my life. But, as the title suggests, our spiritual journey can be a pilgrimage, too, and “a way of life.”

The early pilgrims that Lisa writes of, like Margery Kempe, Felix Fabri, and Pietro Casola (and indeed many others in their day), faced much hardship on their journeys to Jerusalem, encountering long delays, setbacks, illness, and even death. One did not embark on such a journey expecting to return roundtrip in a week; rather, those who left could be gone for many months, a year or longer, crossing mountain and sea, journeying on foot, donkey, or boat.

One of the more striking passages for me is this one:

“Saint Augustine paints a picture of someone a little like me in his Homilies on the Gospel of John. Imagine a person trying to cross the sea to reach home, Augustine says. This person spots her destination from afar; she longs to reach it. In fact, all of us have this longing, for in our home country, the One we love awaits. But how will the pilgrim get there? How will she survive the turbulent waters? How will any of us?…

“These words bring us to one of the great paradoxes of pilgrimage. On our journey, our every step and every water crossing takes us slowly but inevitably to the heavenly Jerusalem. Yet as we make this pilgrimage to God, we also make it with God. We are not left to find our way alone, for God is at once our destination and our means of reaching it. I never tire of sifting this beautiful paradox through my mind. For those on the spiritual journey, it is a comfort to ponder the mystery that the God to whom we travel is in the boat with us—perhaps is even the boat itself.”

How often on our spiritual lives, too, are we ridden with the toils of the journey and the long road, and forget that God himself journeys with us? Along each dark valley, rocky ascent, and slippery terrain, He is the companion who walks with a steady foot, a calming voice, and an assuring presence. We are not alone. He is in the boat with us as we face turbulent waters. He is walking with us in unknown valleys. We have a guide, a footpath, a railing, a leading hand—on the pilgrimage to Him, we walk with Him. What a beautiful thought and image that Lisa brings to life for us in her pages.

As we battle the difficulties and challenges of this life, however, there is yet even another enemy we must consider. Lisa writes, “For spiritual pilgrims, the greatest foes are the infidels of our own heart.”

Ouch. Let that one sink in deep. The truth of this one convicts me. Just thinking through all the challenges of life, we are also battling ourselves, and this might be the worst foe of all. Our spiritual baggage, our past, our pains, our wounds, our bruises, our rights, our justifications, our pride, our selfishness…we carry all these on our journey, weighing down our sacks, adding to the burden, and impeding our progress as much as any other obstacle. We must face the truth—and the hurdle—of ourselves.

While looking through the lens of pilgrimage to holy places, thinking of our spirituality as a pilgrimage and a way of life is a refreshing view. I am grateful.

*I paid for and pre-ordered the book, requested to join the launch team, and received an advance copy to read. This post is not being solicited by the launch team or book publishers, and I am writing my own thoughts and opinions out of my own personal experience.

A New Book for the Contemplative Community: Awakened by Death by Christiana Peterson

I’m delighted to introduce a new book for the contemplative community! Yesterday, author Christiana Peterson released her new book, Awakened by Death: Life-Giving Lessons from the Mystics. This beautiful book offers stories and wisdom from history’s mystics to helps us reclaim a healthy engagement with our mortality. You will find a lot of hope in this book; it’s one that our death-averse culture desperately needs.

I also love the way that Christiana tells us her own stories and fears. In the excerpt below, she begins with a childhood story and shows us how love leads us to care for others’ wounds. This in turn can help us face our own wounds and our mortality.


When I was a child, I developed a Band-Aid phobia. According to my mom, this fear reached its pinnacle when I stubbornly refused to keep the Band-Aids on that she’d applied to the oozing blisters on my feet, caused by those plastic jelly shoes from the 1980s. She didn’t understand why I would rather keep the shoes on and let my blisters continue to break open and pustulate than wear a Band-Aid.

Even now, the thought of used Band-Aids mashed into the dirt of the playground, the ones that flapped off a child’s ankle during play, or soiled bandages in the dusty corners of the public restroom makes me want to gag.

Maybe Band-Aids remind me of wounds. Wounds can be shocking to see and smell, visceral reminders that all those bloody, sinewy, bony parts peeking out underneath the skin are indeed mortal. I remember studying the Black Death in school; the descriptions of the wounds that accompanied such a horrible sickness dug their way into my psyche. Bursting boils or buboes the size of oranges on the groin or lymph nodes, symptoms that tortured the lungs or the blood, aches and pains across the eyes and the head.

The people of the Middle Ages were well acquainted with wounds. They didn’t have the luxury of advanced medicine or science; doctors only had cursory knowledge, and their treatments often did more harm than good. Though they didn’t always understand the science behind what caused bodies to die so violently with the Black Death or other illnesses, they saw what the skin of their failing children and parents and spouses looked like when boils bubbled and burst. They heard the sound of their cries and the agony of the silences when the cries stopped. Their acquaintance with disease and death was unavoidable; pain management a fiction.

For Saint Francis and Saint Catherine, an acquaintance with wounds and decay helped them approach the suffering of others. Saint Francis famously made peace with others’ wounds. Growing up in a wealthy family, he was revolted (as many people were) by the lepers who were forced to remain on the edges of society. Wealth did for Francis what it has always done for those with power and resources: it allowed him to remain aloof from the suffering of others. As much as it was possible for a person in thirteenth-century Europe to avoid suffering, Francis did in his youth.

But his treatment of lepers became a marker of the blossoming of his relationship with God. And eventually, the leprosy that had formerly disgusted him became the evidence of his transformation.

One spring afternoon, Francis slid off his horse, reached out to a leper on the road, and kissed him. Only months later, he heard the voice of Jesus in the church at San Damiano, and he moved toward a life of poverty, giving away all of his possessions and living with lepers.

Saint Catherine of Siena had a vision of Jesus in which she kissed and licked his wounds. This graphic image takes us from our tendency to spiritualize the passage in 1 Peter that says of Jesus, “by his wounds you have been healed.” Catherine seemed, like many mystics, to believe not only in the spiritual but physical power of Christ’s wounds.

There is also a story of a prisoner named Niccolo who was doomed for execution. By the time Catherine visited him in prison, he had already refused a priest and prayer. But Niccolo couldn’t resist Catherine’s charisma and contagious passion for God. When she finally got through to him, he begged her to become his confessor.

As Niccolo’s beheading approached, he pleaded with her not to leave him. Catherine followed him up the long walk to the execution platform, heard his prayers, and knelt to catch his head as it was severed from his body.

As grotesque as these images might seem to us—of Catherine of Siena with her mouth to a wound and catching a decapitated head—she was offering her presence in death and decay.

Though I’ve never licked a wound—gross—I have tended to my children’s wounds, hurts, and bodily fluids more times than I can count. I have cleaned up their vomit and feces, held bloody cuts closed with my hands. And while their wounds concerned me when they were severe, I can’t imagine being disgusted by them. Band-Aids don’t bother me when they have been on the cuts or wounds of my children.

Because I desperately love my children, even the unlovely parts of them are dear to me.

Even so, loving them can be challenging. But it is harder still to love others, especially those who might, at first glance, seem unlovable. Love has to be learned, tended, and nurtured if it is to be deep and lasting. Love expects us to care for the wounds of another, not just spiritually and emotionally but physically.

Saint Francis loved the wounds of others, but first he had to come to terms with his own wounds. Like all of us, he had to acknowledge that there were unlovely things about him too. He mourned his own weakness, and his love for others became so deep that he literally took on their wounds. Some say that the stigmata on his hands, feet, and side that oozed and never fully healed were actually leprous.

Becoming attuned to the things that disgust us and to the things that we fear is not just a good intellectual exercise. The ways we approach the things that horrify and disgust us might show the ways we look at death. The difficult and painful work of facing death can actually be an act of love.

*Excerpt from Awakened by Death: Life-Giving Lessons from the Mystics by Christiana Peterson copyright © 2020 Christiana Peterson admin. Broadleaf Books. Reproduced by permission.


Christiana N. Peterson is the author of Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints. Her writing on the mystics, community, the spiritual disciplines of motherhood, and death has been featured in Christianity Today, Art House America, The Christian Century, and Bearings Online. She’s a regular contributor to Good Letters, an Image Journal blog. She lives in Ohio with her husband and their four children.


Welcome to Friday Favorites! Prasanta Verma and I hope you enjoy this week’s roundup, which includes wonderful words on creativity, kindness, poetry, saints, and spiritual practices. Enjoy and be blessed.


Touching Sacred Earth: Expressive Art and Spiritual Practice with Christine Valters Paintner via EarthRising podcast (disciplines that cultivate a connection with creation and the Creator)

A little more kindness, a little less madness via Cara Meredith (could this kindness be the Christ?)

Seven Suggestions for Living a Creative Life via Dorothy Greco (creativity is part of our spiritual DNA . . . get inspired with these suggestions)

The Return via Marilyn R. Gardner (holy moments and the peace of belonging)

Beyond Juan Diego and Kateri: Meet other indigenous American saints via Meg Hunter-Kilmer (learn about lesser-known saints who embraced Christianity without rejecting the beauty of their own cultures)

Book Launch Interview with Luci Shaw via Writing for Your Life (hear the prolific poet read her poems and talk about writing, divine creativity, and advice for new writers)

Advent Is For Pilgrims

Have you noticed that journeys abound everywhere you look in the Christmas story? Mary and Joseph journey to Bethlehem. Then they take the infant Jesus to Jerusalem forty days after his birth. The wise men journey from afar. And the Holy Family flees to Egypt.

And what about us? Well, the Incarnation sets us on a journey, too.

Fresco of St. Catherine from the Basilica of San Domenico, Siena, ca. 1400

In ca. 1378, the Italian mystic Catherine of Siena wrote:

You see this gentle loving Word born in a stable while Mary was on a journey, to show you pilgrims how you should be constantly born anew in the stable of self-knowledge, where by grace you will find me born in your soul.

This passage is from St. Catherine’s Dialogue. In the passage, God is instructing the soul. Notice, first, that God calls us “pilgrims.” You pilgrims. Hey, you pilgrims! Mary is not the only one on a journey this year. We are, too. We’re on our way to the stable, and we’re going there, in Catherine’s words, to be born anew.

To be precise, we will be “born anew in the stable of self-knowledge.” This phrase sounds remarkably modern. But by self-knowledge, I don’t think Catherine means “finding ourselves.” She means knowing ourselves as we can only truly be known . . . and that is through our rebirth in Christ. Even on a daily basis, we can be renewed in our spirit and regenerated in our heart by traveling to the source. To the stable. Born into Christ, into his great love, we know who we are and we know whose we are. This is surely one of the great yearnings we experience during the season of Advent – to see Christ come into time, into a hurting world, and make us new and tell us who we are.

In The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner speaks of this journey of renewal. Riffing on The Wizard of Oz, he writes, “For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning…” What he describes here is like a rebirth – an acquiring or knitting together of all the parts we need to make us whole.

Both Catherine of Siena and Frederick Buechner really speak to me this year. I’ve been feeling so fragmented, so pulled apart by circumstances and people and the warring desires of my heart. For me, rebirth means to be knit together as a whole creation. When this happens, I will not become something or someone entirely new. I will be most fully myself. This is Catherine’s “stable of self-knowledge.”

I like the way Catherine rephrases her thoughts on birth at the end of the passage quoted above. God says, “you will find me born in your soul.” To be reborn in Christ is to have him be born in our soul. It is a double birth.

If Christ is born in us, we can then bring him forth into the world. We can bring the love of Jesus to our neighbors, our friends, our family, and to our hurting communities. In his commentary on Luke, St. Ambrose said, “Christ has only one mother in the flesh, but we all bring forth Christ in faith.” Our own rebirth helps birth Christ for a world in need.

So this year, I am making a pilgrimage to Bethlehem. I hope you’ll come with me. We will travel to the stable like Mary so that we can find God born in our soul. And we’ll travel as our own broken selves so that we can be born into new life. Jesus and us, born on Christmas day.



Week 3: When You’re Distracted During Prayer

Cloud of Unknowing cover

The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th-century treatise on contemplative prayer, introduces a subject that plagues us all — distractions. Medieval mystics and other giants of the Church speak of distractions a great deal — obviously it’s a prayer problem that’s always been around.

The 13th-century Dominican theologian St. Thomas Aquinas said, “a man can scarcely say the ‘Our Father’ without his mind wandering to other things.” The same is true, perhaps even truer, of contemplative prayer. So if you have trouble with distraction, take heart! You (and I) are not alone. The Cloud author gives us these tips for dealing with those pesky stray thoughts:


When distracting thoughts press down on you, when they stand between you and God and stubbornly demand your attention, pretend you don’t even notice them. Try looking over their shoulders, as if you’re searching for something else, and you are. That something else is God, hidden in a cloud of unknowing.


When exhausted from fighting your thoughts, when you’re unable to put them down, fall down before them and cower like a captive or a coward overcome in battle. Give up. Accept that it’s foolish for you to fight them any longer. Do this, and you’ll find that in the hands of your enemies, you are surrendering to God.


I also believe that when this attitude is genuine, it’s nothing but seeing who you really are . . . This is humility. The good news is that humility gets God’s attention. He’ll descend to avenge you against your enemies. Swooping in, he will snatch you up and then gently dry your spiritual eyes . . .


I’ve been enjoying the Cloud of Unknowing in a newer translation that renders the text in a modern English idiom. Read more here.


Cloud quote - week 3

Featured Book: Finding Grace at the Center

Week Three: Prayer without Judgment or Evaluation

finding-grace-at-centerIn Finding Grace at the Center: the Beginning of Centering Prayer, a collection of essays by M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and Thomas E. Clarke, Thomas Keating provides an extremely helpful introduction to centering prayer based on The Cloud of Unknowing, a Carthusian monk’s prayer guide for novices dated to around the 14th century.

Keating is especially careful to avoid overselling what “happens” during centering prayer. One may not expect incredible revelations or to even be fully in control of what happens during this prayer. Rather, intention becomes essential as we enter this form of prayer.

Keating writes:



“[Centering prayer] is not an end in itself, but a beginning. It is not to be done for the sake of an experience, but for the sake of its fruits in one’s life.”


“The presence of God is like the atmosphere we breathe. You can have all you want of it as long as you do not try to take possession of it and hang on to it.”


“Accept each period of centering prayer as it comes, without asking for anything, having no expectations. In that way its fruits will grow faster.”


“We always want to possess. That is why it is so hard to leg go–why we want to reflect on moments of deep peace or union in order to remember how we got there and thus how to get back. But charity is non-possessive. It gives all back to God as fast as it comes. It keeps nothing for itself.”


“Take everything that happens during the periods of centering prayer peacefully and gratefully, without putting a judgment on anything, and just let the thoughts go by. It does not matter where they come from, as long as you let them go by. Don’t worry about them.”


Read more…


Scripture Meditation: Don’t Think Too Hard about It…

“The Lord knows people’s thoughts; he knows they are worthless! Joyful are those you discipline, Lord, those you teach with your instructions.”
– Psalm 94:11-12, NLT

What better motivation to pursue the silence and rest of contemplative prayer than to read that God knows our thoughts are worthless!

While there is a great deal in scripture that praises meditating on scripture and remembering God’s laws, this Psalm offers a reality check for the times when we rely on our own wisdom. Most importantly, we find that even when God sees our inadequacies and failures, he responds with mercy and instruction.

Even when God knows that we will fall short over and over again, he desires to give us the joy of his instruction and discipline. May we find God’s loving direction, even as we discover the folly of our wisdom.

Book of the Month: Finding Grace at the Center

finding-grace-at-centerWeek Two: Transformed in Silence

In Finding Grace at the Center: the Beginning of Centering Prayer, a collection of essays by M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and Thomas E. Clarke, M. Basil Pennington writes about the transformation that comes in the practice of centering prayer.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of centering prayer for those new to it is the manner in which God transforms our lives in silence. There is no way to measure or evaluate your progress in the moment.

The transformation of our lives happens gradually by faith, much like the way a branch that abides in its vine can grow fruit.



“Perhaps in this prayer we will for the first time really act in pure faith. So often our faith is leaning on the concepts and images of faith. Here we go beyond them to the Object Himself of faith, leaving all the concepts and images behind.”


“If we have lots of thoughts-good, lots of tension is being released; if we have few thoughts-good, there was no need for them… All these are purely accidental; they do not touch the essence of prayer, which goes on in all its purity, whether these be present or not.”


“If we are faithful to this form of prayer, making it a regular part of our day, we very quickly come to discern-and often others discern it even more quickly-the maturing in our lives of the fruits of the Spirit.”


“We begin… to experience the presence of God in all things, the presence of Christ in each person we meet. Moreover, we sense a oneness with them.”


Read more…


For Reflection



Contemplative Profile: Evelyn Underhill

Week Two: Contemplation and Action

Contemplative profiles are back with the help of author and historian Lisa Deam. This month we’re featuring Evelyn Underhill:

In Evelyn Underhill’s later works we see a theme that runs through the history of Christian contemplation: the dance of contemplation and action. Our private prayer life is important. In fact, Underhill says we must each be a “secret child of God.” Yet our prayers also open us to the larger purposes of God. We’re not merely fulfilled; we’re spilled out into the world.


“For it is the self-oblivious gaze, the patient and disciplined attention to God, which deepens understanding, nourishes humility and love; and, by gentle processes of growth, gradually brings the creature into that perfect dedication to His purposes.” (Worship)


“A real man or woman of prayer, then, should be a live wire, a link between God’s grace and the world that needs it . . .” (“Life as Prayer”)


“We are transmitters as well as receivers. Our contemplation and our action, our humble self-opening to God, keeping ourselves sensitive to His music and light, and our generous self-opening to our fellow creatures, keeping ourselves sensitive to their needs, ought to form one life; mediating between God and His world, and bringing the saving power of the Eternal into time.” (Spiritual Life)



How can I be both a receiver and a transmitter of God’s love this week?


About Lisa Deam

Lisa Deam writes and speaks about Christian spiritual formation from a historical perspective. She’s the author of A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps. Visit her on Twitter @LisaKDeam and at lisadeam.com.